In Bermuda … by Stephen Foster Smith

In Bermuda, there are hibiscus plants blooming roadside under the uninterrupted sun; their petals are soft, blood-red bijous, pinpricks of bloodletting yielding forth from a small forest of dark green leaves; their harmless pistils strikingly clear; their stigmas and styles sitting a short distance ahead of their golden stamens. It is a miniscule, unassuming detail slipped inside of a fairytale to distract the reader from looming danger. Just over the cliffs, waves swell and rise, cresting against the reefs; their crashes explosions of white and blue crystal sheets that burst skyward, falling back into the receding tide with relief. In Bermuda, narrow roadways wind through its countryside, and I am swaying in a taxi with four other men as it travels up Bermudian hills, passing homes nestled into a landscape of green covering the hillsides like velvet. These are pastoral details that lay groundwork for a dangerous, heroic journey in which a naïve, childlike adult defeats a formidable foe. None of this is a fairytale, though, because I am eating men, risk, and whole hearts with a mouth full of lust these days—I am the danger. 

Here, throughout my stay, I will stand on sand pillow-soft between my toes and remark about the weather and how it is too cold to vacation in Bermuda in the spring. On this same beach with the same soft sand, I will walk across thorny, brown seaweed that sits as a barrier between the people and the ocean, some kind of awful, glistening mote that does not keep visitors at bay. During my stay, I will also isolate myself in an unoccupied part of the hotel lobby and call a psychic through an unstable WiFi connection after an internet search that does not yield any clear results about whether or not I will pay any fees for using a WiFi connection to place an international call.  For now, though, I am an irrational, ruminative threat winding through Bermuda with people I barely know—one of which with whom I have been trading limbs in the dark, and, as one might or might not guess, has slept with another man who is also clutching the taxi’s interior as we wind through Bermuda on our way toward Horseshoe Bay.

The lies of first impressions are like strange honey on the tongue, and I was untruthful when I met him, pretending that I was content with being a second option, with being a stand-in heart, a proxy made imperceptible by the yearning for another body that was not even reminiscent of mine. In that moment, in all of my dishonesty, all that had been locked away in depths too deep to chart fell from my lips, uninhibited and deeply compromised by a misunderstanding of the attraction. You see, desire is too big to take up residence in my mouth, so I let it live in the air instead, wafting falsely because its bravado is too great to mitigate. So, in Bermuda, when we play the moonlight on repeat, our bodies married and tropical, I am not thinking about the pleasure—I am concerned about my decision making. I have traveled to a foreign place in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean with a man who obsesses over the movement of my hips while we lie on the edges of couches in absolute darkness, and also over his old lover with the same fervor. 

We deplane onto an apron made torrid by the sun burning bald on its surface. Bermuda’s airport is small, playing American pop standards on its speakers—the soundtrack to our course through customs. Afterward, we have a meal by the ocean, the four of us. One of the men is tall with an ordinary face the color of soft cream. There is another man with deep skin and broad shoulders and a pronounced collar bone complimented by any shirt worn, and another with skin of rich coffee shining beautifully under the sun. We dine by a window overlooking the water, its peaks moving swiftly under tufts of white, featherheaded clouds. Plates of appetizers clutter the table and colorful drinks sweat on coasters. With the four of us on an island that is not the preference of adult men vacationing on holiday, it seems as though a trip for couples, and that is the illusion one of us—maybe two—believes. 

“You all look so good together,” the one who looks beautiful under the sun tells me, referring to the one with the ordinary face and soft cream for skin, to whom we both have given our bodies at least once, maybe more. We are all standing in a bar that has no cover charge and a mixed crowd and reggaetón spilling through the speakers. He leans in again, “You see the one I’m with. He wants me so bad, but I’m not going there.” A vinous smell coats his words, but there is no wine in sight, just Dark ‘n’ Stormies and tall bottles of rum standing on the ends of the bar; their amber bodies still gleaming, even at night. The one with the enviable collar bone approaches and pulls the one who thinks I compliment the other with the ordinary face into the crowd of people, and the dancing envelopes them, immediately swallowing them whole. Alone, I search the bodies standing under a kaleidoscope of lights moving to syncopated drums and heavy bass; they are all paper silhouettes tilting drinks to their mouths. I home in—he is in a corner of the bar amongst the gales of screams rising like a pulse, like the heartbeat of the people as one body, and another man is in his face, coy with a wanting mouth.  

While descending into Bermuda, I had hoped to see daybreak at least once—the sun creeping slowly into the sky, ascending with a devastating drudgery that was both painful and sublime, spilling its light onto the surface of the rustling waters. Yet my bed, I discovered, faced the wall and not the sea, and even if it did not, our balcony sat in the corner of the hotel; it’s pink, waist-high wall allowing only a partial view of the ocean only after the obstacle of palm trees before it, along with the rest of the balconies alongside the outward-facing hotel wall. This was a discovery that included no pivot, no gleaming thing anew, just a banal change in expectations, much like when my blind desire for the ordinary face with soft-cream skin, who slept in the opposite bed, wilted into an effete need for flesh—a mood contoured by the understanding that much of it all was a draw and unsubstantial, even the sex. 

Though now, in a corner of the bar, I can see his ordinary, soft-cream face widening into a smile; the roundness of his jaw complimenting whatever language taking shape between him and the wanting mouth standing in the same corner—a body that is not mine nor his lover for whom he pines. Usually, whenever he manufactured a smile or engineered some sort of polite reply, it all seemed sterile; it lacked the genuine warmth of a face amused by any instance of comedy. He did this, I noticed, in response to what he thought people wanted from him, what face he showed the world because he was confused of what it actually desired of him. He wore his professional façade like a well-tailored suit, managing clients, talking legal matters and concerns around tapas and maybe a drink or two. The mild chaos of a law firm mixed with the certainty of jurisprudence’s monotony was enough for him to feel satisfied as a professional, but careers are only veneers standing sheer before what we truly prefer to weaponize against the reality of how close we are to loneliness and abandon. I saw behind the shell, beyond the stage magic, and noticed that whatever upheld the façade also worked to convince him that inviting me to Bermuda immediately following a failed relationship was a good idea, to which I agreed but was now debating as I watched him smile at the man feigning coyness as a way to bring him closer, bring the soft-cream into his own desire. However, it is not the seduction that is loathsome, but my own naivete in thinking I had refined my romantic sensibilities enough to maintain a sort of formal distance when keeping alive a tryst just beyond its spoiling point. 

Now the two stand almost enwrapped, as close as our own bodies and mouths had been weeks before. The sight does not hurt, does not disappoint, but, yet again, causes a dull interruption in my train of thought, a new direction with a slow tug, another burden with an indeterminable weight. This trip is an half-witted attempt to zombify some weird issue of flesh even before it had died—a vain endeavor, like foolishly attempting to pull the stone from the cherry before piercing its taught skin. In this space with the multicolored lights distorting bodies and faces into funhouse illusions, there is enough plain evidence of my mistake: I was chasing some type of romantic myth and had painted the ordinary face as the hero, and, the more I ran toward him, the farther I ran from myself, from the defenses I had built to combat such a move in which I was bound to crash head-first into a wall of truth.   

During spring in Bermuda, there is a great possibility of clouds gathering, eclipsing the sun, covering the beaches and streets in a washed-out light, the sky an enormous blot of gray. The tide froths more and more under these conditions, and the winds feel familiar but caress the face with an unfamiliar hand. These, of course are not the same winds felt on the shores of, say, California or Florida, and, of course, this beach is not the familiar beaches of the southeast coast. These winds whip one into clarity, or so that is what I believe is happening to me. In the distance, the surf rains down after it crashes into the jagged fronts of the reefs, and I stand crestfallen in the sand, choosing whether or not to enter the water.  As the waves break—some maritime metronome keeping me fixed to a rogue and unrelenting dirge that seems to guide my pace, even when I am not walking the shore here in Bermuda—I watch tourists debate whether to climb the reefs even though a warning sign urges them not to lift a leg and brace the least intimidating shoal. 

Back at the place where we choose to sun bathe to music and trite conversation, the ordinary face of soft cream lies to make himself feel better about organizing a pointless trip that included not one, but two lovers—one new and one old. Our cups of tropical drinks sit in holes dug by forcing the round, plastic bottoms into the delicate earth. “I say, honesty is the best. Like, with you, I was completely honest with you,” which only means he told a fraction of the truth, using the other portion to hide what drove him to a negative arrangement of emotions. “What do you mean?” I am wiping the red, alcoholic drink from my mouth, my hand dripping with a rum mix. “What does that mean?” He looks over, “I told you that I had just got out of something, and that I wasn’t looking for anything serious,” which he did stress on occasion, only to follow with actions that did not convey the same sentiment—the embracing and lying together in the dark, and the panting afterward, and, too, the daily conversations, prolonged in some instances or punctuated by dinner. “So then the guy at the bar in the corner was just an incidental? A casualty?” He glances out at the ocean, gulping his rum mix, “I don’t think we need to discuss this,” fraying the conversation, unthreading it into wisps of something noncommittal. I watch the waves—they rush the shore, lap, break, and recede, slowly pulling away into the vast, blue flatness that seems to travel beyond the edge of time. Their innocuous rhythm is enough to keep my mind in motion, suggest that it move backward to the most recent evening on the island. 

If I stand in the right place, my WiFi reception maintains strength and those small arches do not disappear and reappear to tease my haste. Aside from my cellular provider informing me that I may or may not receive charges at $0.25 a minute for using WiFi to make an international call, I am grasping the phone and meandering in the hotel lobby, searching for a spot that ensures both privacy and stability. I am attempting to dial a psychic I frequent because I am sure that, now, my defenses guarding the most foolish part of my mind have weakened, worn down to dull points that would not stave off any sort of delusion. Right past the concierge, the hotel ballroom sits dark and empty, its red, patterned carpet typical of what one finds in resort hotels. I sit on a stack of chairs piled high by the staff, facing not a wall but the emptiness of the ballroom. The small WiFi arches have yet to form a tower so the call will not connect. I move, no progress. I move again, this time walking toward a window that rises from the floor to the ceiling, passing an employee holding silver trays leftover from the first serving of dinner—still no progress. The arches fill their empty spaces in the upper, right-hand corner of the phone and suddenly disappear, doing this often until there is no WiFi available. Returning to the stack of chairs, I pass the same employee who is now free of the large trays, and he stops me, “Is everything OK?” I cannot manage a smile, so I nod. Staring, he turns away and continues out of the ballroom. I upturn the phone, and the arches are full, stacking their way to the top of the screen. I receive a message from the psychic that instructs me to call her instead, and it begins. She comes through the line, her voice crackling on the verge of absolute white noise, the Wi-Fi connection just stable enough so that it continuously asks for the internet password. Suddenly the crackling resides, and she asks if I can find another place to sit. Cautiously monitoring the connection, I move to a desk covered in souvenir stationary, hoping she does not fall victim to the static. My hands curl a complimentary notepad and pen, understanding that whatever information she is going to tell me will be greater than the revelation I had encountered sitting on the balcony attached to our room minutes after we placed our legs through our underwear and raised them to our waists. That evening, the wall of the lobby jutting forth into the sky was painful to my eyes, and not even the palm trees bending in the night, their bodies leaning, giving themselves to the force of the tropical winds could assuage my disappointment in something so clear but so intangible. The perpetual breeze brings for a chance at coherence, reminding me that the trip is nothing short of a shot in the dark.

In the lobby, with the threat of static interference, the psychic tells me everything I already know, but she makes it even more clear, crystalizes it beyond what showed itself so forcefully on the balcony the previous day. I am tapping my feet on the red, patterned carpet as she speaks, recalling the trip right up to the moment I called her—annoyed while walking the apron, forcing a smile in the customs line, standing under the hotel-pool waterfall and noticing its artificiality cheapening the beauty of the island, and the bars with the men who, at any other point, would not faze me but, for some reason, seem like they threatened what does not and never will belong to me, and the terrible sex I am having, accepting it because it sends some half-watt shock through my body, enough to charge a scintilla of desire somewhere far away and watertight. She says, flatly, “He’s stuck. He’s attached to someone else, and he’s got to get over that first,” her drawl like sugar sweetening the dismay. The rest of her words are enough to make the beach bearable the following afternoon. 

He gulps the rest of his rum mix, along with the honesty he toted that was now lost somewhere in the infinite grains waiting for the tide to wash them away. “Would you like anything?” standing and pulling down the ends of his shorts, to which I simply shake my head horizontally, deadening the effect of such a deep-cutting lie he had told. The other two sit and talk, struggling with the umbrella as the wind upends it from its home in the sand. Sunlight finally appears, interrupting the blanket of gray—its crack in the sky softly illuminating the shore, but those leaving and entering the water still shout and jump, leaping in and out because it is too cold for their liking. Tourists and visitors alike wrap themselves in towels, negotiating when would be the best time to try the ocean once again. Plenty of couples have found spots under umbrellas, reclining onto chairs flattened into the sand, and I wonder if any of them have found themselves both in tune with their partners while also out of step with their rhythm. He returns with only one drink, asking, “are you sure you don’t want anything?” tilting his head to crouch under the umbrella and have a seat. I shake my head again, wondering that if I tell him I really want to erase him from my present and fly back to the southeast coast of America, would he think I too was feigning coyness under flashing, rotating lights, or that such was an attempt to create false contention that would only result in passionless coupling in front of a box television and a balcony with a poor view of a sprawling island. 

Bermuda’s airport food suffices while we are waiting on our departure. Among the flash fried chicken and fries, small terminals, and blue seats typical of any airport, I am in a rush to leave the country and return home, not because of the country, but to leave my mistake and uncertainty with the palm trees leaning in the wind and the boats docked on the bays. The reefs will be a memory and the roadside hibiscus plants will be nothing more than a fleck of beauty in a backward glance. After arriving, deplaning, and taking the train to my apartment in the city, I will regard myself not as the formidable foe, hero, or childlike adult, but the wave that explodes when it makes contact with the reefs, its ends fraying and dissolving into sea spray, disappearing into the overcast sky. 

Stephen Foster Smith is a black, gay creative nonfiction writer living in Atlanta, GA. Raised in the southeast corridor of the United States, Stephen’s early life was grounded in that peculiar special southern mystery clouding a heavy and murky history. Stephen Foster Smith has published work for Electric Moon Magazine, NECTAR, and is a contributor to Prism & Pen on Medium. With eyes fixed upon the world and its history, he writes to explore place and space, identity and visibility, as a black, gay man.

Twitter: @theindigogriot

Vagabond City Literary Journal

Founded in 2013, we are a literary journal dedicated to publishing outsider literature. We publish art, prose, reviews, and interviews from marginalized creators.